Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Jean Prouvé by Laurence Bergerot and Patrick Seguin (editors)

Jean Prouvé Rolling step-ladder 1951. Bent steel and wood, 194.5 x 66.5 x 120 cm. Galerie Patrick Seguin
Jean Prouvé, Rolling step-ladder 1951. Bent steel and wood, 194.5 x 66.5 x 120 cm. Galerie Patrick Seguin

Chelsea, New York gallery goers with an astute eye for furnishings will have picked up on the cult status of French mid-century modernist Jean Prouvé.  A vintage specimen of his legendary Potence lamp provides scant illumination and surreally displaced period charm to the very public back office at Sonnabend Gallery, for instance; a weatherworn school desk does sterling duty at Sikkema Jenkins, often to be seen, too, at their fair stands; and Prouvé’s 1951 three-legged Guéridon table accompanied by a few of his Chaise Métropole of the same time (or is it the Chaise Caféteria? working from memory is a challenge to connoisseurship!) provide relief for the weary browser at Jack Macrae and Paula Cooper’s 192 Tenth Avenue bookshop.

Prouvé has begun to be acknowledged, belatedly, as a giant of the modernist design canon thanks to museum shows like the year long display currently running at MoMA, and the very widely toured displays of his Brazzaville Maison Tropicale, a prefab structure for West Africa, also of the 1950s, seen for instance at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and Tate Modern, within the last couple of years.  And care of Design Within Reach some of the gorgeous items already described in this review can be found in humble homes such as this reviewer’s.  Prouvé’s mode can be characterized as a soft rationalism. His trademark structural elements were irregularly shaped, sail-like forms which managed to feel simultaneously solid and weightless, and from which seats or tabletops (or whole houses indeed) could appear effortlessly supported or cantilevered.

It is ironic (but in design history, hardly unique) that vintage prototypes and early examples of work by this socialist and resolute mass producer are now fantastically coveted collectibles among art collectors, fashion personalities and assorted celebrities.  Rusting skeletons from prefab projects by Prouvé are often displayed – stripped of their functionalist intentions – as proto-minimalist sculptural objects.

Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris, in collaboration with Sonnabend, have issued a two-volume, gorgeously produced, scholarly but accessible (more so, at least, than the rather dry though invaluable four volume catalogue raisonné by Peter Sulzer) compendium of all things Prouvé. The publication itself is a cool balance (as befits so cool a balancer as Prouvé) between his newfound celebrity style status and the democratic ideals that motivated his work in the first place.  The first volume documents Sonnabend’s 2003 exhibition, various shows by Seguin, and beautiful shots of important pieces in private art and design collections; included in this volume are texts by and interviews with such contemporary Prouvé enthusiasts as architects Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano, the artist-designer Marc Newson, and clothes designers Azzedie Alaïa and Marc Jacobs.  The second, fatter volume includes a very substantial catalogue of designs introduced by Raymond Guidot and compiled by Catherine Coley, as well as an anthology of documents by Prouvé and a biography by his daughter, Catherine Drouin-Prouvé.

Laurence Bergerot and Patrick Seguin (editors) Jean Prouvé: Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris, and Sonnabend Gallery, New York, 2008.  Box with 2 volumes – 372 b&w and 629 color reproductions – 615 color pages – French/English, ISBN: 978-2-909187-00-6